Tuesday, December 10, 2019

"His Heart Is Broken" – On Call to Rome, The Prefect's "Fiat"

Already a major moment in Manila and across the Philippines as the country's main celebration of its patronal feast, to the surprise of no one, Cardinal Chito Tagle's first appearance following his Sunday appointment as prefect of the Propaganda Fide was a four-hankie affair.

While the Pope's pick to oversee the church's worldwide missions – and, soon, the "New Evangelization" of the global north as well – only referred in allegory to his transfer to Rome, using the frame of accepting God's "narrative" as opposed to one's own, at the post-Communion of yesterday's packed Mass of the Immaculate Conception in Manila Cathedral, the Nuncio to the islands, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, put Francis' call to Tagle in not just deeply emotional, but strikingly biblical terms as the new prefect broke down in the cathedra he'll soon depart:


Especially with the now-pending vacancy for the capital already dominating the local focus, it bears noting that Caccia – who would normally oversee the succession – is himself outbound over the coming weeks: in late November, Francis tapped the Italian as the Holy See's new mission-chief at the UN headquarters in New York.

Notably (and unusually) a veteran of the First Section of the Secretariat of State – that is, the Curia's operational hub, in contrast to the Second Section, which manages diplomatic relations – the 61 year-old legate will inherit one of the Vatican's main geopolitical listening posts, and a major center of the "soft power" the Holy See has concertedly aimed to burnish under Francis. What's more, the UN mission has become one of Vatican diplomacy's most intensive postings over recent years, requiring a prodigious output of contributions on practically every question facing the international community, so much so that the Pope himself once joked that Caccia's well-loved predecessor, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, had to "write with both hands at the same time."

Himself a Filipino, Auza departed New York last week for Madrid to begin his new posting as Nuncio to Spain. While his public statements will be far fewer, the "both hands" skill will come in handy for all the reports he'll need to prepare – some three-quarters of the 32 Spanish archbishops will be reaching the retirement age of 75 over the next two years, led by the "cardinalatial" incumbents of Valladolid, Valencia, Sevilla, Barcelona, and the capital itself.

Back to Manila, meanwhile, much as a succession atop Asia's marquee diocese would be of immense, worldwide importance in any period, it is all the more so given the present scene, specifically in terms of the prominent tensions between the Filipino bishops and the country's authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte, a convert to an Evangelical church who has used the church's leadership as a consistent target in his ongoing campaign to impose "law and order," including through extrajudicial means.

For context, the islands' Catholic population of 80 million-plus (more than 80 percent of the total population) constitutes the global church's third-largest national bloc after Brazil and Mexico.

In that light, though Tagle has pointedly dialed back the open activism of the Manila archbishopric – a history that saw his predecessor, Cardinal Jaime Sin, effectively preside over the 1986 "People Power" revolution (based at a city shrine) that toppled President Ferdinand Marcos – with several of the bench showing considerably less reticence in confronting Duterte (and receiving death threats for it), the preferred tenor of the capital church's next occupant toward the Filipino "White House," Malacañang, is arguably the frame that will define the choice.

Having made several public appeals to seeking "harmony" and "dialogue" since his move was announced – albeit without making reference to any particular situation – Tagle will have an outsize role in the selection of his successor.

Yet at the same time, it shouldn't be lost on anyone that Francis is the Pope who declared Óscar Romero a saint.

*  *  *
Speaking of successions, inevitable as it was, it's still no less significant that Sunday's announcement spurred a considerable uptick of chatter on the next Conclave... and far above the "peanut gallery" at that.

To be sure, with his 83rd birthday coming next week, Francis is showing no signs of slowing down. However, it can be said that by calling Chito Tagle to Rome, a new phase of his nearly eight-year pontificate is underway – one which will bring several long-gestating projects to completion.

Of course, one of those was already on tap for these weeks, with the crucial Post-Synodal Exhortation on Amazonia promised for "the end of the year." On the broader front, meanwhile, as 2019 marked the year in which Francis' voting cardinals first comprised a majority of the College – a figure only set to increase with time – that reality highlights two unique angles set to dominate the making of the next Pope, whenever it should come.

On one side, as Papa Bergoglio has halted Benedict XVI's practice of convening the College for a day of consultation prior to each Consistory – in large part so they could size each other up – what's now a majority of the current body of electors simply don't know each other at all, rendering anyone among them with a significant profile an immediately outsize figure, to an even greater degree than in the past.

Yet what's more, given Francis' insistence on turning away from the traditional centers of prestige to spread the bulk of his red hats across the church's far-flung "peripheries," and usually to smaller dioceses at that, the flip-side to the diversity and pastoral depth of his choices is the extent to which many of them, if not most, lack the administrative experience of running a sprawling, complex local church – let alone the Vatican – above all in terms of the bureaucracy that comes with it.

Here as well, Tagle's backstory stands out: even before taking the helm of Manila's fold of 4 million in 2011, his prior diocese of Imus in Cavite (his own hometown) comprised some 2.5 million Catholics.

As the selection of every new Pope essentially boils down to a sliding scale between pastoral gifts and aecumen in governance – that is, which mix of the two is deemed optimal for the ecclesial moment – how the incoming "Red Pope" fares in the crucible of a major Curial post (especially in the team he recruits to fill out his weaknesses) could well prove determinative for the future of the church, full stop.

Indeed, only a fool would dare prognosticate what a post-Francis stakes will look like – beyond the historic axiom that "Il Papa si fa in Conclave" ("The Pope is made in the Conclave," and there alone), what happened 2013 is more than sufficient proof of the perils of looking too far ahead.

Still, given the past century's precedent that anytime a single figure was perceived as "the man to beat" going in, he's tended to emerge in white – think Pius XII, Paul VI, even Tagle's own "maker," Benedict XVI – what was already one of the most compelling possibilities next time around just got bigger still. And whatever might happen from here, at least for now, that's nothing to sneeze at.

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Sunday, December 08, 2019

"Let Us Tell the World...."

For the world's oldest continuous office, it was "the most fabulous crowd" Peter ever saw.

Five years ago next month – two decades after a record 5 million thronged the Quirino Grandstand in Manila's Luneta Park for Mass with John Paul II – Cardinal Chito Tagle and Pope Francis combined to outdo their respective predecessors by at least seven figures, drawing some 6 to 7 million souls (in a driving rain) to yet another closing Eucharist in the heart of global Catholicism's third largest outpost.

As the historic moment for a global Catholicism wrapped up, the call first used at the 1995 edition of a Pope's "Biggest Day Ever" returned to the space, to be taken up with vigor by a new generation.

It took this long, but today's news goes to prove the degree to which Francis never forgot the scene. And now – as the Mission Czar of a missionary pontificate – the figure dubbed long ago as "The Golden Child" has been given worldwide carte blanche to "tell the world of His love" not from the "peripheries," but from the very "center" of the church.


As as a late call from a senior Vatican op put this all-important move: "What [Francis] wants is clear – his successor."

If that concept is news to you, start paying attention.

Either way, the major question now presents itself: does he get the apartment over the Ancora bookshop?

*  *  *
All that said, if there was ever a day for this scribe to be shocked awake from Rome for the first time since B16's resignation, this would've been it – and, indeed, this was it.

As if the week just past wasn't already full enough, these days, one can't even take peace on an Advent Sunday for granted.

Of course, rising to the moment – in this case, literally – is what the moment demanded. Yet the amusing thing is how much of Whispers' more "established" peers were either too stunned or clueless to do the same... and we haven't even reached the more expected critical pieces of these weeks.

Ergo, much as this scribe is hoping to keep at the work, as ever, given the costs that come with it, that can only happen by means of your support:


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As Star of the "New" Evangelization, Pope Calls "Golden Child" to Rome

Over the seven years since Francis' election, the activity of the Roman Curia has largely taken a back-seat to the doings of the Pope himself. Yet while that reality is due to a number of factors, for once, it is certainly not the case today.

In an extraordinarily rare Sunday announcement – and on a major feast, no less – at Roman Noon on the Immaculate Conception, Francis named Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 62, until now the head of Asia's largest diocese in Manila, as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples: the 400 year-old entity which oversees the missionary works of the global church.

The last cardinal to be elevated by Benedict XVI before his resignation from the papacy, Tagle's full-time arrival on the Vatican stage – and the massive notice it'll be showered with – reflects that rarest of things on this beat: genuine, undisputed "star power." Over his decade on the global scene, the new Propaganda chief has attracted a cult following that extends well beyond the sizable Filipino diaspora worldwide, in large part given his tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve (and, with it, use his sleeve as a Kleenex).

In terms of the "old Curia," today's move represents Francis' most significant personnel pick since the then-new pontiff named now-Cardinal Pietro Parolin as his Secretary of State within six months of his election in 2013. Then again, not for nothing has the prefect of the Prop Fide long been dubbed the "Red Pope" for the considerable power that the post exercises across a broad swath of the Catholic world.

Known mostly by his own nickname, "Chito," Tagle's habit for either riding a bicycle or the bus even after becoming a bishop at 44 saw him cited as a sentimental papabile going into the 2013 Conclave, and while his seasoning since has kept that thought in evidence through Francis' pontificate, the addition of a major Curial post on his CV will inevitably be seen in some quarters as a move toward "succession planning" on the part of the reigning Pope, who once reportedly confused the boyish-looking cardinal for a seminarian in an elevator at the Domus.

In that light, given his new office's mammoth real-estate holdings and liquid assets – all accrued over centuries to fund the mission works – the fresh scrutiny on the Vatican's portfolios amid a new round of financial scandals hands Tagle (pron.: "Tahg-LAY") an equally formidable challenge, both in terms of the daily stewardship of de Prop Fide's sprawling resources and, even more, flagging concerns over mismanagement.

Given that, as well as the congregation's responsibility for recommending appointments of bishops in the mission territories, this particular assignment can be viewed as a "test-pilot" for the papacy itself, arguably more than any other role. At the same time, though Francis' long-awaited constitution to drastically reform the Roman Curia remains in edits with his "Gang of 6" cardinal-advisers, it is notable that the last major draft of the text, titled Predicate Evangelium ("Preach the Gospel"), would see the Propaganda absorb the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, which Benedict XVI founded during the 2010-11 Pauline Year.

A theological historian of Vatican II, as the cardinal received his doctorate not in Rome, but at the Catholic University of America in Washington (under Fr Joseph Komonchak), today's move brings the first Roman stint of Chito's 37-year priesthood. Even prior to today's move, however, Tagle was already a regular in the city for his secondary work as president of Caritas Internationalis, the worldwide confederation of the church's charitable and humanitarian efforts.

Beyond his extensive travel, Tagle's visibility in the wider church has been bolstered by The Word Exposed – the half-hour TV program he hosts in metro Manila on each Sunday's readings, which is syndicated to other Catholic media outlets worldwide.

Today's move was made possible by Francis' transfer of Cardinal Fernando Filoni – the Propaganda's head since 2011 – to be grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. A former Sostituto best known as the lone ambassador who didn't flee Baghdad's "Green Zone" during the US-led invasion in 2003, it's notable that Filoni was moved 16 months before reaching the retirement age of 75.

With Filoni's appointment to the Grand Magistrate, the Bronx-born Cardinal Edwin O'Brien has retired as head of the millennium-old order dedicated to the protection of the holy sites in Jerusalem and Palestine, and the general support of the church in the Holy Land.

The 15th archbishop of Baltimore, and a Vietnam vet who later served a decade as chief of the 1.5 million US Catholics serving in uniform around the world, O'Brien has kept up a frenetic pace of travel on the order's behalf despite turning 80 in April.

In a change of his long-set plans, while O'Brien had aimed to return to the US – specifically, Baltimore and not New York – on his release from the Holy Sepulchre post, a Whispers op close to the cardinal relays that he will instead keep his primary base in Rome for the time being.

* * *
SVILUPPO: Even if formal word of Tagle's appointment surfaced at 7pm Manila time, the Chancery of the Pinoy capital says that the new prefect's first comment on the move won't come until tomorrow's Mass of the Immaculate Conception, the national patroness of the Philippines.

All told, meanwhile, if the epic significance of this move can be boiled down to an analogy from history, this is it:
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Wednesday, December 04, 2019

With Malone Ouster, Buffalo Is Vacant

10.30am – Beginning by saying that "this family is in need of a tremendous amount of healing" following 22 months of crisis, now capped by today's resignation of Bishop Richard Malone, below is on-demand video of this morning's first local appearance of the newly-named apostolic administrator of Western New York, Bishop Ed Scharfenberger of Albany; the Buffalo Chancery press conference extends for over an hour:



*  *  *
(6.01am ET) And now, it's official – as first reported here on Monday, at Roman Noon this Wednesday the Pope has accepted the resignation of Richard Malone as 14th bishop of Buffalo, and named Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany as apostolic administrator until the 15th bishop takes office.

Both moves have immediate effect.

On a context front, while unnamed allies of the now-departed prelate have misled some Western New York outlets into portraying Malone's ouster as some sort of "early retirement," for clarity, it bears emphasizing that no such arrangement exists in the Catholic Church. Under canon law, a bishop resigns his office for one of two reasons: either upon reaching the age of 75, or otherwise due to ill health or another "grave reason" which has inhibited his ability to effectively govern.

Having become the sixth head of a US diocese to resign over his handling of abuse allegations since his hometown mentor, Cardinal Bernard Law, left the archbishopric of Boston 17 years ago next week, Malone nonetheless holds the title of "bishop emeritus" of Buffalo, and the diocese will remain responsible for his upkeep and living costs. According to the 2010 update to the USCCB norms on resigned or retired US bishops, a bishop emeritus is to receive a stipend of at least $1,900 a month, adjusted higher should the local cost of living index demand it.

Already said to be at his personal home on Cape Cod ahead of today's announcement, the extent of Malone's public role and activity – that is, to the degree that he seeks it – will be decided with his permanent successor, in consultation with the Holy See.

Switching gears, now tasked with beginning to right the ship – and facing tough calls that begin with the likelihood of seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid a crush of over 200 abuse lawsuits, to say nothing of an ongoing FBI investigation into the diocese – Scharfenberger is expected to appear at the Buffalo Chancery this morning to meet with the diocese's staff and, likely, hold a press conference.

While it is not unheard of for a Rome-tapped administrator to figure among the possibilities for the permanent successor, at 71, the Albany prelate is ostensibly beyond the preferable age for Buffalo's next bishop, who will need to provide stability over the mid-range future. At the same time, two names among the handful already cited in church circles as potentially matching the identikit for the post – Bishops Lawrence Persico of Erie and Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah (a Western New York native who joined the Conventual Franciscans) – are respectively 69 and 68.

As ever, more to come.

SVILUPPO (6.50am): Pledging himself to "a lot of listening and learning" in the interim role, Scharfenberger will appear at a 10.30am press conference – livefeed to come.

For his part, meanwhile, in a three-page statement on Rome's announcement of his resignation, Malone continued to mischaracterize his resignation as an "early retirement" while admitting "that the spiritual welfare of the people of the diocese of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed.

"It is my honest assessment that I have accomplished as much as I am able to," he said, "and that there remain divisions and wounds that I am unable to bind and heal."

As bishop-emeritus, he said he plans to remain living in the diocese.

For more context and the general state of play, shortly after the announcement, a familiar voice for this crowd showed up on Buffalo's WBEN news-radio:


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Monday, December 02, 2019

Dear Buffalo: It’s Over – Capping Year of Scandal, Malone Set To Resign

After a year and a half of crisis and torment for the 570,000 Catholics of Western New York, the wait is over – on Wednesday, the diocese of Buffalo is set to fall vacant upon the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone in the wake of a staggering outbreak of scandals.

The first and most important outcome of October’s Apostolic Visitation of the Buffalo church, four Whispers ops confirm the report first delivered to this scribe early yesterday.

Beyond announcing the Pope’s acceptance of Malone’s resignation at 73, house sources likewise indicate that the Holy See is to name Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany as apostolic administrator of Buffalo until a permanent replacement is installed.

Set to be granted the full faculties of the diocesan bishop for the duration of the vacancy – a significant contrast to an interim leader elected by the local Consultors – the Albany prelate is notably a product of Brooklyn, whose Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio conducted the Buffalo Visitation on Francis’ behalf.

For clarity, while the groundwork is already being prepared under these provisions, it nonetheless remains the case that – however unlikely – anything can change until an announcement is formally made by the Holy See, and no move has any legal effect until that point. Accordingly, in the process of reporting this story, one op relayed that the Wednesday time-frame for Malone's departure was not the initial planned date for it.

At the same time, no indication has been received on the future of Buffalo’s lone auxiliary, Bishop Edward Grosz, whose role in being the first point of contact on abuse allegations has come in for heavy criticism over the last year.

As the focus now turns to the succession, two things bear noting. First, all indications are that the process shouldn’t take too long – as reported here upon the Visitation’s launch, with the vacancy now triggered, the Roman investigation’s report will essentially comprise the opening stage of the search: the required consultation of the diocese’s rank-and-file, which establishes the state and needs of the local church. Beyond that, given the keen awareness in several quarters that the situation has already been dragged out to excess, it’s to be expected that the Buffalo file will be placed ahead of the nation’s 20 other diocesan openings in being processed through the Washington Nunciature and Congregation for Bishops with all possible speed.

Along these lines, as Whispers reported to the page’s stakeholders in their November briefing, with informal conversations on potential Malone successors having been underway in significant circles over the last several months, a rough frame of possible choices is already well in the works.

Beyond the now globally-known festival of misconduct – which, beyond charges of a cover-up of abuse cases, included what Malone himself termed a “love triangle” involving the bishop’s priest secretary, another cleric and a seminarian – as well as the general fury and distrust of the people (which saw 86 percent of locals in a Buffalo News poll call for the embattled prelate's ouster, and Malone's halt to publishing his calendar of public events due to protests at his appearances), the diocese’s financial and legal future have come to loom heavily on the scene, even beyond an ongoing FBI investigation.

Already a defendant in over 200 lawsuits filed under New York State’s one-year “window” suspending the civil statute of limitations, Buffalo is widely perceived as the most likely Empire State see to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following the diocese of Rochester’s filing shortly after the “window” opened in August. According to one internal projection obtained by Whispers, a majority of the New York province’s eight sees could end up following suit as the decades’ worth of litigation piles up over the next nine months.

Lastly, however delayed it might be in the eyes of most observers, Malone’s ouster is likely to satisfy the consensus sentiment of the US bishops, one of whom called the now-departing prelate a “shit-storm” as the Buffalo crisis wore on, while several others have voiced exasperation in asking “What on earth is taking so long?” over the last year.

* * *
All that said, though Malone’s departure has been prematurely heralded elsewhere at various points over these last months, for the purposes of these pages – guided as ever by a sense of process – it was simply impossible for Whispers to report the move until a decision and date were firmly in hand….

And so, here we are.

With thanks to the donors who’ve kept the shop afloat this far, with another process now at hand – and no shortage of other threads on tap, to boot – as ever, these pages only keep coming your way through your support:


SVILUPPO (9pm ET): And now, 15 months since the first alerts on Malone's handling of cases were reported by Buffalo's WKBW, earlier tonight this scribe talked the road ahead with the colleague whose diligent, often thankless work brought Rome to this moment, Charlie Specht:


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For Alberto, The "Empire" – Capping Long Transition Plan, Chicago Aux. To San Bernardino

In the space of just four decades, the church in Southern California's "Inland Empire" based in San Bernardino has grown at a nearly unparalleled rate in modern times: today, the two-county diocese's 1.8 million Catholics now comprise a fold as large as Brooklyn, and just slightly smaller than Boston – all told, American Catholicism's sixth-largest outpost, now some seven times its size upon its founding in 1978.

And now, for just the second time since then, San Bernardino is under new management... or will be soon – at Roman Noon, in a surprise pick, the Pope named Bishop Alberto Rojas (above), the 54 year-old auxiliary of Chicago, as coadjutor to Bishop Gerald Barnes. The Mexican-born choice (de Aguascalientes), who came to the US as a seminarian before his ordination in 1997, will succeed Barnes at the mammoth see's helm shortly after the veteran incumbent – who's led the diocese since 1996 – reaches the retirement age of 75 next June.

The culmination of a two-year transition plan charted by the East LA-bred Barnes, his succession has fallen to the only active Hispanic auxiliary in any of the nation's three largest dioceses. In other words, with Rojas' promotion, the only active Latino prelate serving in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago will – at least, for the short-term future – be LA's Archbishop José Gomez, now the USCCB President. While that reality underscores the immense docket-wide challenge of meeting demand for native sons to minister to American Catholicism's de facto rising majority, it's likewise no accident that Rojas – a soft-spoken type whose low profile on the wider scene (until now) belies the affection with which he's regarded both at home and among the bench – has been sent to a charge whose Latin contingent is among the nation's largest, with Hispanics comprising some three-quarters of San Bernardino's faithful.

At the same time, even as the Pope's pick has overseen two of Chicago's six ample-sized regions in turn since his 2011 appointment as an auxiliary to Cardinal Francis George, the incoming Californian nonetheless faces a remarkable change of scale. For one, it's been a decade since a Stateside prelate has been catapulted into a post of this size without experience as a diocesan bishop. Yet what's more, while the now-retired Bishop Rutilio del Riego still lends a hand with Confirmations and other functions, Rojas will have no active auxiliary upon becoming the third bishop. (By contrast, San Bernardino's more established peers in terms of size each have four or more active deputies.)

Home to an unusually collaborative ecclesiology – the fruit of Barnes' lifelong premium on forging consensus (and asking questions) – the Inland church's growth and the unusually public transition planning have combined to leave no shortage of decisions for Rojas upon his ascent. Among others, Barnes has reportedly left to his successor whether the diocese should embark on building a new cathedral given the relative inability of the 700-seat Our Lady of the Rosary (a parish church at the founding) to host major events due to its space limitations amid the ongoing boom. At the same time, though the growth has occasionally led to rumblings that the diocese could be split, with its Riverside County half spun off, that notion is currently on ice amid a prevalent sense that two separate local churches would have difficulties being financially solvent on their own.

On another logistical front, San Bernardino faces the challenge of finding and forming sufficient priestly vocations to serve the growth. Accordingly, it's notable here that the incoming bishop spent nearly a decade on the faculty of Mundelein Seminary, and has taken a lead role on Hispanic vocations as Chicago's lead Latin prelate.

His Welcome Mass reportedly set for mid-February, Rojas will be introduced to his charge-to-be at a 10am Pacific press conference:



While the naming of coadjutors does not impact the US' docket-totals in the immediate sense, as of today, five Stateside dioceses are vacant, with another dozen led by (arch)bishops serving past retirement age. To broad shock, the former count increased yesterday with the sudden death at 59 of Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth from a cardiac arrest as the Minnesota prelate was preparing for morning Mass in a local parish.

All told, the current pile-up of pending moves is merely a prelude to the "generational wave" set to hit through the next two years, over which time Francis will have a rare ability to recast the American hierarchy as more than 50 diocesan seats – nearly 30 percent of the nation's 179 Latin-church postings – come open due to age-outs and upward movement.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

In the Blast Zone: "No" To Nukes... "Hai" To "The Faith 'In Dialect'"

Over Francis' nearly eight years on Peter's Chair, a critical emphasis of his pontificate on the wider scale has been a concerted effort to burnish the Holy See's "soft power" – the degree to which the church's geopolitical emphases are heeded on the world stage not through economic nor military might, but as a moral arbiter with a standing able to convene disparate interests.

Of course, the push has notched some remarkable achievements, above all in facilitating the US' Obama-era opening to Cuba, and playing a key role in securing the global consensus that brought the 2015 approval of the Paris climate accords. Specifics aside, though, what the marked increase in papal advocacy has wrought is that, to a degree last seen at the zenith of John Paul II after the fall of Communism, when The Man in White speaks, the world's leaders pay attention.

Ever aware that diplomatic capital has its limits, and constrained by the Holy See’s status as a neutral entity in international law, while Francis & Co. have largely aimed their spotlight toward the general imperatives of the Gospel – welcoming migrants, seeking peace, defending the poor – this weekend brought a prominent shift from the usual, as Papa Bergoglio amplified the already-formidable heft of his office with the powerful optics of Ground Zero at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, using his stops at the sites of the nuclear annihilation of August 1945 to urge the worldwide abolition of atomic weapons.

As if the scene itself wasn't enough, Francis punctuated the moment even further by making his first-ever use of the prayer to be made "an instrument of your peace" often cited as being written by his patron (even if, in reality, it most likely wasn't).

Accompanied by another repetition of the pontiff's now-standard warning that, already, "a third World War is being waged piecemeal," Sunday's statements on nuclear war are but the culmination of the Holy See's increasing alarm, mostly expressed at lower levels over recent years amid developments on several fronts.

Yet more than the individual outbreaks of concern – whether sparked by the great powers or smaller states desiring a lane in the arms race – for the Vatican, the urgency of seeking a total nuclear ban is underpinned by the general sense the Pope underscored today: namely, that "we are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism" which, "made even more grave in the face of the development of new technologies for arms," threatens to diminish the reserve of state-level actors and erase the progress toward disarmament made over the last three decades.

Significant as the messaging is on the global stage, the Pope's call nonetheless had an even more loaded resonance for his hosts in their current context. Over the last year, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to pursue a controversial bulk-up of the nation's Self Defense Forces – a plan that would require a significant reversal of Japan's pacifist constitution, enacted after World War II, which explicitly "renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation" and stipulates that the country's "war potential" in terms of weaponry "will never be maintained."

As the memorial-sites of the nuclear blasts stand as the most powerful reminder of the consequences of Japan's last militarized age, a papal plea of "Never again!" at that very spot is about as close as you'll get to an on-site Vatican intervention in domestic politics.

The Pope was slated to have his customary bilateral meeting with Abe, followed by the usual speech to the civil authorities, as this piece was going to print.

(SVILUPPO: In his address to the nation's leaders, Francis reiterated his anti-nuclear call, but hinted again at the domestic tensions over the proposed defense expansion, saying that "History teaches us that conflicts and misunderstandings between peoples and nations can find valid solutions only through dialogue, the only weapon worthy of man and capable of ensuring lasting peace.")

*  *  *
Meanwhile, as for the church's internal fallout from this weeklong trek – Francis' 32nd international tour – as noted at the outset of this Fall Cycle, the significance is bolstered by the timing... and the proof's been in the product.

Fresh off the emergence of inculturation as the dominant fault-line of the Amazon Synod, again, that the pontiff chose these very same weeks to visit the historic main "battleground" of efforts to integrate local cultures into the proclamation of the Gospel – an effort often met with Roman skepticism, or worse – was hardly an accident.

Accordingly, with his authoritative "last word" on the October event now pending – and a rebooted papal magisterium on "valid" inculturation set to be critical to the result – given the anticipation for the Synod's closing text, it is telling how no shortage of the last week's preaches and speeches offered an enthusiastic green-light to the Asian Church and its leaders to keep at "find[ing] ways to profess the faith 'in dialect,' like a mother who sings lullabies to her child.

"With that same intimacy," the Pope told Thailand's clergy and religious on Friday, "let us give faith a Thai face and flesh, which involves much more than making translations.

"It is about letting the Gospel be stripped of fine but foreign garb; to let it 'sing' with the native music of this land and inspire the hearts of our brothers and sisters with the same beauty that set our own hearts on fire."

While the point hardly needed doubling down, Francis did it anyway – "Let us not be afraid to continue inculturating the Gospel," he said, the Vatican marking the line in italics to stress his emphasis.

In the same vein, barely an hour after landing in Tokyo a day later, the visitor shared with the Japanese bishops his admiration of how, from its inception 400 years ago, "the mission in these lands was marked by a powerful search for inculturation and dialogue, which allowed the formation of new models, independent of those developed in Europe."

Noting the initial era's use of "literature, theatre, music and various types of instruments, for the most part in the Japanese language" as aids to evangelization – and, for its first century, to widespread effect in terms of conversions – the Pope termed that legacy "a sign of the love that those first missionaries felt for these lands."

Though Francis avoided engaging in the specifics of the recent open plea from Tokyo's recently-retired archbishop urging that Rome let the locals take the lead on how to integrate their culture into ecclesial life, in hindsight, he didn't have to – his phrasing did the trick.

And as a pontiff's words to local communities enter into the canon of his teaching for the universal church, it wouldn't be a surprise to see at least some of this week's salient passages resurface when the Apostolic Exhortation on the Amazon Synod rolls out, potentially as soon as next month.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Fulton's Feast – For "Blessed Sheen," Peoria Races To Beatification Day

As last week in Baltimore was marked by a general mood of siege mentality among the US bishops, these last weeks of 2019 will bring a rare feel-good moment for the bench: for just the second time ever, the elevation of one of their own to the altars... and the Big One at that.

Barely four months since the decade-long "Body Wars" ended with the transfer of Venerable Fulton Sheen's remains from St Patrick's Cathedral in New York back to his native Peoria – then the Pope's confirmation within days of a miracle attributed to his intercession – late yesterday the Illinois diocese announced that the Beatification Mass for the pioneering televangelist will be held on Saturday, December 21st in its St Mary's Cathedral, where Sheen was ordained a priest and is now entombed.

Per custom since the last step before sainthood was returned to the local churches by then-Pope Benedict XVI, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, will lead the rites as papal legate.

While a month's notice for an event of the kind is unusually rapid – all the more in a prominent instance like this – the timing reflects Peoria's wish that Sheen's beatification be held in the centenary year of his ordination to the priesthood, which took place in St Mary's 100 years ago last September, as well as the 40th anniversary of the archbishop's death on December 9th. That said, the site-choice and timing (on the Saturday before Christmas, amid rural Illinois' eventful winters) make for a Sheen-sized logistical headache, above all as what will likely be the most high-profile elevation of any Stateside Blessed will be limited to roughly 1,000 attendees.

Given the mammoth devotion to "Bishop" Sheen – in particular, among the baby boomers who made his weekly prime-time catecheses television's highest-rated program of the 1950s and early '60s – odds are they could fill the cathedral just with the clergy who'd want to show up.

In the two prior instances of major beatifications on US soil, the 2016 Oklahoma City Mass that elevated the homegrown martyr Stanley Rother was held in the city's convention center, and what was initially pegged as an over-ambitious setup for a crowd of 15,000 ended up being swamped by a turnout that stretched outside the space. Moreover, two years ago yesterday in Detroit, the beatification of the Capuchin friar Solanus Casey – revered throughout the Midwest as a miracle-worker in life – took over Ford Field, the city's NFL stadium, filling most of its 70,000 seats.

Again, given the exponential magnitude of Blessed Sheen's cult on the global stage – to say nothing of the landmark of the first US-born bishop to reach the threshold of canonization – the move for a small venue, however symbolic, is baffling at best. As one commentor noted, though, perhaps the most fitting thing about the decision is how it means practically everyone will be left to watch the rites on TV: the medium that arguably made Sheen the 20th century's most significant and beloved American cleric.

On a happier front, one of the key calls Rome and Peoria face over the next month is the choice of Sheen's feast-day – a celebration which, by definition, will initially be restricted to either the latter diocese alone or the wider Chicago province (which comprises all of Illinois).

Given the tradition that a feast is held on the date of death of the respective saint or blessed, that's not an option in this case as December 9th is taken by the commemoration of the Guadalupe visionary St Juan Diego, while in a more general sense, observances ranked as memorials are muted in deference to Advent. Among other dates likewise off the table are September 20th – Blessed Fulton's priestly ordination-date – as the mandatory memorial of the Korean Martyrs already holds it, as well as June 11th (his ordination as a bishop), the feast of St Barnabas.

The one significant life-date that is open, however, is Sheen's birthday, May 8th... which, falling as it does during the Marian month, also makes for an apt call-back to the poem he famously made his own on-air:


All told, with Sheen becoming the first US bishop to be sanctioned for devotion since John Nepoumecene Neumann, the Czech-born fourth bishop of Philadelphia, was beatified in 1963 (then canonized in 1977), the new blessed adds to an impressive array of figures elevated over the last decade or so whose feasts would potentially argue for inclusion on the national calendar.

Beyond the emergence of Rother – the first North American in modern times to be declared a martyr in odium fidei – and Casey, as the recent canonizations of Óscar Romero and John Henry Newman now allow for their global veneration, there is a notable backlog of observances which to some degree enjoy the requisite "national cultus," yet are not currently permitted for celebration across the States. Of course, any bishop may petition the USCCB's Secretariat for Divine Worship for the addition of a feast, which (upon the recommendation of its staff) would then be presented to the entire bench for a vote and need the confirmatio of the Holy See before taking effect.

Even for the ample queue, however, something says the wider take-up of Fulton's feast won't take terribly long.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

And Now, The Vote

(Updated 10am with election results)

BALTIMORE – Nine years ago on this Election Morning, as the leadership of the nation's largest religious body hung in the balance, this scribe asked a favorite op what he thought would unfold as we headed onto the Floor... and Bishop Morlino of Madison (now gone to his reward) shot back in imitable form: "I really don't know what's gonna happen, but I'm gonna make like Chicago today – 'Vote early and vote often!'"

To be sure, this body has never lacked for characters. Still, no take on this edition of the Making of the President will be as memorable as that.

Of course, that 2010 vote produced a shock result, upending a half-century of precedent to give the bench's helm not merely to a figure other than the sitting vice-president, but the archbishop of New York. That trajectory is virtually set to continue today as, for the first time, the bench chooses the head of the nation's largest diocese as its elected leader.

As for the rest, the rule of thumb holds – namely, no one knows until everyone shows up... and this time, that's all the more the case.

With the voting set to begin shortly after 9am Eastern, here's the livefeed:


...and all the rest as it ensues.

SVILUPPO (10am ET): To no one's surprise, history came – and with a sizable mandate....
With the vote, Gomez represents several "firsts": beyond being the first Latino to lead the bench – and, again, the first bishop ever to hold the nation's largest diocese and the presidency at once – the Opus Dei numerary is the first chief (¿o jefe?) to be chosen from Southern California, now home to nearly one in seven American Catholics, the largest regional concentration of the faithful on these shores. (He is not, however, the first Californian president, all told: that was John Raphael Quinn – the "godfather" of the post-Conciliar progressive bloc – who stormed to the post in 1977, months after being named archbishop of San Francisco.)

For the Vice-Presidency, meanwhile, with Detroit's Archbishop Allen Vigneron having bested Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Miltary Services in a 151-90 vote, the outcome bears a notable curveball – with the incoming #2 currently 71, Vigneron would be 74 (read: a year short of the retirement age) at the next executive vote in 2022.

In the lone prior instance of the scenario, Cardinal John Carberry of St Louis, then the incumbent vice-president, declined to stand for the presidency in 1977, when he was 73. Ergo, the next executive cycle could well bring an open contest for the top slot for the first time in nearly a half-century.

As ever, more to come.

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